Researchers from Canterbury Christ Church University have confirmed that human remains kept in a southeastern English church are almost certainly those of St Eanswythe. Dating back to the seventh-century, these are the earliest verified remains of a medieval English Saint.
St Eanswythe was a Kentish Royal Saint and the granddaughter of Ethelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity. She is believed to have founded one of the earliest monastic communities in England, most likely around AD 660 on the Bayle – the overlooked historic centre of the port town of Folkestone. She is thought to have died in her late teens or early twenties.
These relics mark the period that saw the very beginning of Christianity in England – and signify a continuous Christian witness in Folkestone that stretches from her life to the present day. Eanswythe’s remains might well have been destroyed in the Reformation (along with those of her contemporaries), had they not been hidden away in the north wall of the Church of St Mary & St Eanswythe, where they were discovered in 1885.
The verification was made thanks to the National Lottery-funded Finding Eanswythe project which conducted the archival research and secured the church legislation to allow the moving and examination of the relics. It was led by Canterbury Christ Church University.
Dr Ellie Williams, Lecturer in Archaeology at Canterbury Christ Church University, and the osteologist who worked on the project, said: “In 2017 when we launched Finding Eanswythe we couldn’t have imagined that three years later we would conclude the project studying the skeletal remains of what is almost certainly St Eanswythe herself.
“We were surprised by how much of the skeleton still remains, and through drawing together a wide range of expertise, our work has allowed us to construct a fuller biography of her life and death. Further scientific analyses are underway, and it is hoped that we will soon be able to know more about this young woman who is such an important part of Folkestone’s history.”
Dr Andrew Richardson from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust added, “This locally-based community partnership has produced a stunning result of national importance. It now looks highly probable that we have the only surviving remains of a member of the Kentish royal house, and of one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon saints. There is more work to be done to realise the full potential of this discovery. But certainly the project represents a wonderful conjunction not only of archaeology and history, but also of a continuous living faith tradition at Folkestone from the mid-seventh century down to the present day.”
The project now needs to raise funds for the next stage of work, which will reveal more about Eanswythe and to ensure that her remains are housed properly for the future and can be securely displayed for research and tourism purposes. The next analytical steps will include stable isotope analysis and DNA analysis.
“This is an incredibly exciting find relating to our nation’s religious heritage and Folkestone’s story,” commented Stuart McLeod, Area Director London & South at The National Lottery Heritage Fund. “This discovery just goes to show the incredible heritage and untold stories still waiting to be revealed and the role National Lottery players have in writing them into our nation’s history.”
Fantastic results from the research of @AFRatCAT @Findingeanswyth & @CCCUarchaeology serendipitously I came across a late 15th century ship from Kent called Eanswyth yesterday! @ProfKeithMclay @cccubookshop @CCCUStudents @CCCUHistory @HumLib_cccu @cccu_humanities @HeritageFundSE https://t.co/bBQarVUWpo
— Jackie Eales (@jeales1) March 7, 2020
Top Image: St Eanswythe’s skeletal remains. Credit: Mark Hourahane / Heritage Lottery Fund, Canterbury Christ Church University